Mining the Market

Cable discovers the varied Latin audience and seeks new ways to serve it
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Before launching last spring on its New York systems, Time Warner's fledging Spanish-language all-news channel, NY1 Noticias, faced the usual startup headaches: assembling a staff, designing on-air graphics, signing up advertisers. But Noticias faced some dilemmas that general-market cable networks don't have to worry about, such as which of the five Spanish words for brown would be used on-air?

"There are so many cultural subdivisions" within the Hispanic community, says General Manager Steve Paulus. His solution: "The majority rules, but it needs to be recognizable to everyone."

Armed with data from the 2000 Census, the media industry is increasingly focused on mining the Hispanic market.

So far, there are dozens of cable services seeking to cater to Hispanic viewers. Some, like CNN en Español and MTV Español, launched in the late 1990s and can lean on established sister networks. New services, such as Si TV, an English-language entertainment service for Hispanics, and a Spanish-language ESPN are slated to launch soon. And other players are getting ready; Univision and its Mexican programming partner Televisa, for example, are creating up to five digital networks. NBC Cable is exploring ideas for new channels as well.

But Hispanics, the country's largest minority, are a complicated group. Mexican-Americans are the largest percent of the population, followed by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and then at least a dozen more nationalities.

And there are language differences. Some speak only English, others only Spanish, and many, particularly younger Hispanics, are bilingual. Dialects and word usage—as NY1 Noticias found—vary widely.

These complexities make it challenging to program for Hispanics, even for a regional news network like Noticias with 500,000 subscribers.

Of course, Spanish-language broadcast networks Univision, Telefutura and Telemundo dominate Hispanic viewing, but industry executives say there is plenty of room for cable.

"There is a big group that don't want to watch prime time novellas," said Danielle Gonzales, director of investment, at Chicago-based Tapestry, a unit of Starcom Mediavest Group. "As long as the quality is decent, it is a different genre and a new offering, they will get viewers."

Two-year-old Mun2 is trying to tap into a different audience. NBC-owned and aligned with broadcaster Telemundo, Mun2 targets urban Hispanic and non-Hispanic youths with MTV-style programming, mostly in English.

But the target audience can be difficult to explain, admits Yolanda Foster, vice president of programming for Mun2, even to knowledgeable advertisers and operators. "They find difficulty fitting [Mun2] into one of their existing drawers," she says. When MSOs want to put Mun2 on a Spanish-language tier, Foster argues that her English-speaking youngsters aren't there. She bills Mun2 as the "Latino BET."

"Our audience needs to be inclusive, rather than a niche of a niche," she adds.

The notion that the audience for some services would be too small doomed the Weather Channel's plans for a Spanish-language channel. After the company shut down its Latin American channel, executives mulled plans for a U.S.-based Spanish service. After an initially positive response from operators, interest waned, according to Weather Channel President Patrick Scott.

Operators, he explains, said the service was hyper-niche, which would "cut down our potential viewership." MSO executives also argued that even Hispanics who couldn't understand English could understand the Weather Channel's symbols and numbers. So, Scott says, "we folded our tent reluctantly."

ESPN, however, is about to unfurl a very large tent. The sports net will launch its 24/7 ESPN Deportes channel in January, joining Fox Sports' Fox Sports World en Español. Given the number of general-market sports nets, says ESPN Deportes General Manager Lino Garcia, "the Hispanic male is underserved in TV in general and in sports."

Like the other Hispanic cable nets, ESPN Deportes will try to cater to a wide-ranging constituency. Expect plenty of Major League Baseball and NBA coverage, which are popular with Hispanic viewers, and soccer. Sports like hockey and golf are not as a good a fit. Deportes will also produce its own news and information shows, including a version of SportsCenter.

So far, Garcia says, operators are embracing his network, and negotiations are going well. At the recent CTAM meeting in Seattle, he recalls, "one operator whipped out a channel card with ESPN Deportes on it [already]." Even so, Deportes hasn't secured any carriage yet.

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